Ask Jason

May 31, 2020

Tyler asks…

“I enjoyed hearing you play cello on Mother’s Day. Do you have a very old cello? Is it true that old violins and cellos sound better with age? What do Columbia Orchestra members have?”

Great question, thank you. It used to be that a player could afford one of those great, Italian older instruments. The antique market has skyrocketed in the last 40-50 years, so now those instruments might cost $200,000 to $300,000. Because they’re antiques, they’re valued not so much on how they sound as their rarity and preservation. So like a lot of players I own a modern instrument, and I think most of the members of the orchestra do unless they have a fairly modest antique one.

The good news is there are a lot of great modern makers. A couple of years ago some rather unscientific but interesting tests were done. They’d mix up, say 5 antique violins with 5 modern ones and have a player try them out blindfolded or have experts listen to them blindfolded. It was very tricky to pick out which was which, and when they ranked their sounds, some modern instruments beat out some of the antique ones.

But when you’re buying a modern violin or cello, it’s not entirely “modern.” Some makers—David Burgess is one who comes to mind—develop their own patterns for the dimensions, and how thick the wood is, and how the top and back arch. However many, many modern instruments are copies of a particular instrument, say a violin that Stradivarius made in 1702. Or if they’re not an exact replica, they are made very much in the style of a maker like Stradivarius or Guarneri.

When it comes to cellos for example, there are two “poles” of copies that people tend to like. One is Stradivarius of course. Stradivarius cellos tend to be not-too-wide, and a little long. They have great projection and often have a brilliance to the tone. Jacqueline Du Pre and Rostropovich played famous Strads.

The other end of the spectrum is a Montagnana style cello. They’re a bit shorter and quite a bit wider than a Strad. As a general rule people say they are a bit darker sounding and have a big booming bass.

Yo Yo Ma plays on a Montagnana (as well as one of Jacqueline Du Pre’s former Strads.) As an aside, you know how lots of musicians give their instruments names? Yo Yo Ma once gave a concert and at the meet-and-greet, a little girl asked him, “does your cello have a name?” He said, “no. What do you think I should name it?” The little girl thought about it and replied, “I think you should name it ‘Petunia.’” And that’s exactly what he did. That cello will go down in history as “Petunia.”

My cello is actually a copy of the instrument played by the great Hungarian cellist, Janos Starker. It was made in 2007 by a great maker named Lawrence Wilke in Connecticut. Starker asked Lawrence to make him a copy of his cello and allowed him to study the cello and measure all its dimensions.

Starker’s cello was made in 1705 by the Venetian maker Mateo Goffriller. Goffriller was Montagnana’s teacher. If you look at it, it’s like a Montagnana on the bottom and a Strad on the top. It has some of the rich highs on the top string but also the booming bass on the low string.

Violins and cellos are almost always spruce on the top with maple back and sides. (Occasionally they’ll trade the maple for poplar or maybe willow.) Does it have to be those woods? No. In fact, guitar makers use all sorts of woods: cedar, redwood, mahogany, rosewood, koa… They all have very distinctive sounds and guitarists sometimes have different guitars for different pieces or genres.

But violins and cellos are almost always spruce top and maple back and sides? Why not try something new? I think it’s because the sound we’ve come to associate as “the perfect violin sound” or “the perfect cello sound” is the sound of spruce on maple. That’s become the ideal and few people are trying something new.

And that’s a big part of the answer to Tyler’s question. There’s almost nothing on my cello that isn’t exactly like it would have been had the cello been made in 1705 except the wood is less than 20 years old instead of 300. Yes, the pegs secretly have modern gears installed, and two of them have their ends chopped off so I use a key to turn them. That’s the only technological advance on it.

What other product or service can you think of where almost nothing has been changed for 300 years? I’m not sure I can think of one. But that’s why some modern instruments hold up very well against their antique counterparts. Some modern makers have gotten really great not at pioneering new techniques, but at doing it exactly the way the old masters did.

Now in truth, does my copy of Starker’s cello sound as good as the 300-year-old original? No. I mean I haven’t played the original but I’m sure it’s better. The aging of the wood does do something special to the sound that you can’t replicate. But the fact is that it is still an excellent cello with many qualities in common with the original, and since I didn’t have to pay one or two million dollars to buy the original, I’m very satisfied!

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